NASHUA -- When Howie Dean shows up to speak someplace, there's usually a certain ritual. First come the requisite apologies for the Governor's lateness. Then, as the crowd squirms, the True Believers, young Deanies, take turns at the mike, explaining their reasons for devoting so much of themselves to the campaign. Without fail, they mime their idol, fists in the air, repeating the angry Dean mantra, "this country belongs to us, and we have to take it back."
Last Friday Dean was set to visit a Nashua VFW hall. Per usual, the hall was packed to capacity, and organizers even sent some of the volunteers to stand in the snow outside to make room for voters inside. An emissary for the Fire Department counted heads to make sure things stayed on the up and up. The crowd hovered at around 300 strong -- not nearly the biggest Dean has seen, but downright impressive considering the event was held on a weekday afternoon in a hail and sleet storm.
Sam Simon, a 19-year-old Dean organizer for the city of Nashua, got up first to explain why he "got into politics in the first place." It seems that when Sam was a wee six year-old, both his brother and sister came home from college and announced they were gay. His siblings kindly supplied the first grader with T-shirts with gay rights slogans on them, and he proudly wore them to school. You know what Simon ran into then, don't you? Hatred, bigotry, the works. Actually, it was a bit milder than all that. In Simon's own words: "Everyone at school was cool with it, at first," he said. "But then as time went on, and people figured out what the slogans actually meant, they weren't so cool with it." Another American tragedy, very uncool.
Then came the Vermont Civil Unions bill, which showed that Dean was willing to treat Simon's siblings "as human being with the same rights as the rest of us." The decision propelled Simon to drop out of Harvard and hit the campaign trail. Never mind that Simon told CBS two weeks ago that it was the Iraq war that drew him to Dean. It's all about what crowd you're talking to.
After the applause that followed his somewhat awkward tale, Simon told the crowd that as a "grassroots" campaign, the Dean campaign organized everything. They, in fact, were today's equivalent of the "Freedom Riders of the 1960s." So, we were all about to be trained, er, "organized," to clap in unison. So, 20 minutes before Dean even entered the room, 300 people are loudly clapping, many nodding their heads to keep the beat of the Dean machine.
Afterwards, Simon was somewhat reticent with reporters. He was reluctant to give his name, and when asked his age and position in the campaign, two facts readily provided on the Nashua Dean site, he said, "I'm not sure if that's information I'm allowed to give out." Simon scurried up the chain of command, until finally someone said yes and he came back and gave up the answers to the simple questions.
Apparently the keep everything under lock and key attitude Dean has used with the records from his Vermont governorship has rubbed off on his young scions.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT the minions. Let's hear it for Frontrunner, M.D., the man who has made John Kerry the laughing stock of the world, put a spring in Karl Rove's step, and dissed the Clintons enough to make James Carville pounce. "It seems like he's come down with a case of 'mad mouth' disease," Carville said recently. When Gephardt union guys nearly beat up some scrawny Deaniacs last week, Gephardt praised it as a sign that this was a "two person race." General Wesley Clark has been telling crowds that it is down to him and Dean. Dean may have taken a hit in polls lately, but he's still 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor. They are now fighting over who will merely compete with him.
Unlike the other candidates who seem to be in a constant makeover mode, Dean has not changed drastically since he began this campaign. The way he turns, the hand mannerisms, the voice inflection, the pause to signal tardy applause -- all of this remains the same as it was the first time I saw Dean speak in New Hampshire to a crowd of three people a year and a half ago. And for all the talk of "moving to the center" and taking Jesus on the campaign down South and Confederate flags, the message hasn't changed at all.
Everything is George W. Bush's fault. The recent mutual fund scandal is because Bush has failed to provide "moral leadership" to the country. Mad cow disease? That was G.W.B. Kids with asthma? G.W.B. If it's a problem on the front page of the paper, Dean will find a way to connect it to George W. Bush.
Dean supporters will talk your ear off about how he's a centrist, but Dean's Friday speech suggested otherwise. Government is the answer, always. Dean promised to institute a program to "keep dads interested in their kids," for example. Today's Republican Party makes "Ronald Reagan look like a left-winger." Confidently, Dean explained yet again, Saddam's capture "did not make us safer" and that "there is no war between the West and Islam." When a woman asked Dean what needed to be done to save Medicare, he said: "You have to stop voting for Republican presidents. Of course, you wouldn't do that. You wouldn't vote for a Republican."
But that's okay kids, because Daddy Dean is going to make all those nasty Republicans just disappear. "We're going to roll back the clock on the right-wing revolution of Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush," Dean said. Newt Gingrich? How did the forgotten bogeyman of Election '96 find his way into the 2004 campaign? With Howie Dean, evidently, there's always plenty of hate to go around.
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